WED Imagineer and Disney Legend
Chris Merritt, who went from being a Disneyland Cast Member to working as an Imagineer for WDI, wrote this article for a DoomBuggies.com issue of Haunted Attraction magazine. It is one of the last interviews published with Marc Davis, famed Disney animator and Imagineer. Davis, who is responsible for scores of famous Disney characters both in the parks and on screen, is largely responsible for the Mansion's sight gags and silly spooks.
By Christopher Merritt
Marc Davis had no problem letting you know what he thought about something...
I remember one visit, and I foolishly told him how he should respond to someone's letter. He turned to me, raised his eyebrows and said, "You know,you're not scoring points!"
In 1990 I was 20 years old, working at Disneyland - and on my way to CalArts in the fall. I was totally obsessed with Disneyland and the designers behind the attractions. Through a series of coincidences and family friends, I was lucky enough to meet Marc and Alice Davis, who just happened to be my artistic heroes. Being 20, and completely oblivious to manners, I invited myself to their home so I could interview Marc about his design work for WED (now WDI). Being the supportive people that they are - they said "Sure. Come on up. We'd be happy to have you."
I had approximately one million questions for Marc - but mainly I wanted to know about Disneyland. Particularly the Haunted Mansion. It was (and still is) my all time favorite Disney attraction. I had spent hours as a kid looking at his sketches and designs in the Disneyland guidebooks. He surely couldn't answer all I had to ask him. I was coming from an intense love of the ride - and wanted to know all the minutiae behind it.
Marc probably thought of the Mansion as another job in a long career of bringing Walt's dreams to fruition. It was difficult to get more than a standard 3 or 4 tales about the project out of him. He had about 20 really good stories that he liked to tell - you had to actually spend more than a few hours with Marc to get some of the good stuff.
At the end of the day, I'm not sure Marc was entirely happy with the design of the Mansion. He surely would have liked more control over the project. "I felt there were too many men of equal standing put on this," he recalled. "Too many cooks, as I say." But what he was in charge of - he loved. And with good reason. Marc Davis was a master of design. He knew it - and had no trouble letting those around him know what was good design, and what was bad. And he certainly had opinions about the things he disliked.
He never agreed with the business of the bride. The idea of using a ride as story telling never convinced him. "You know that the first guys who worked on it could never sell it to Walt - because they were trying to tell a story about this bride who was left standing at the altar, and the groom had died a horrible death. The thing was, with this kind of attraction I found out (and Walt agreed), that this was not a story telling medium. These attractions at Disneyland and Disney World are experiences - but they are not stories! You don't have a story that starts at a beginning and goes until the end - as I say I think this worked very well in that regard. Any of these things I worked on had no story at all, and I think they worked too."
X Atencio (script writer for the Haunted Mansion) recalled the same. "When you go through the ride, you really don't have enough time to tell the story of the bride, so you just go by and see her. It's a good illusion - but some people get it, and some don't." And Marc didn't care for what they did at Phantom Manor in Disneyland Paris. That team opted to use the story of the bride as the basis of that version. Alice Davis recalled, " That's why we didn't like the Paris version - because they tried to force this story. Particularly outside - Walt would have hated it with all the dead plants and trees. Why would you have a man who was 6 ft. tall scare all the children before they even got inside?"
But Marc truly enjoyed the portions of the original ride he designed. The finale in the graveyard is one of his undisputed masterpieces. A tour de force of comedy and staging; it is hard to find a scenario in a dark ride that is packed with so much and works so well. Only Pirates Of The Caribbean is comparable. All of the beautifully staged gags in the final scene prove that he was a master of the gag. And when you see the quantity of finished sketches done for all the shows he worked on in the 1960s, you start to realize that he had to have been doing at least 5 - 6 watercolors a day. What is even more startling is that they are all good.
Marc did several hundred sketches for the Mansion. He always knew he wanted things to read quickly. He recalled, "When we showed the Auction scene from Pirates to Walt, I said, "I'm sorry - I think there is too much to see at one time here," Walt said, "My god, that's great! We do so much business down here, that means that the next time people come through, they'll see something they haven't seen before!" And the thing that I came to realize about these gags is - if you happen to blink, and you miss something - you still haven't missed the attraction. There is so much still to see!"
He claimed his years in animation taught him the importance of staging - but having seen his pre-Disney work and fine art, I believe this is a talent he possessed from the beginning. His sketch for a ghostly boxer reads instantly. And his idea that the Mansion would be inhabited with ghosts from all eras of history is apparent with his sketch of a turn-of-the-century showgirl - and her counterpart drinking out of her slipper! (Marc, who was a master of the martini, was adept at sneaking drinking gags into the shows he worked on.) The gags read. And they are funny! He liked to say, "I would always try and contribute a tableaux - I think this is what I contributed to this. I always felt that there was nothing particularly funny down there at Disneyland. I wanted to improve that."
He was also adept at experimenting with other styles. His painting of a ghostly arrival to a banquet contains both a surreal, floating landscape, as well as ghosts that seem to be less literal former humans. They seem to be more like ectoplasmic blobs with human features. "I had many, many ideas for a ghost house," he recalled. "I would do 20 drawings to get one. Because I don't think you should overlook any bets. As I say, I would never just do one. I remember Walt Disney one time - someone held up a drawing and said, "Hey Walt, what do you think of this?" And he looked at the guy and said, "It's awfully hard to chose between one!"
And he did his best to work with the earlier idea of a bride. He tried several versions, including a sweet little old lady, and a more sinister creature - clutching a candle and a black cat. His visions of "pop-up" headed demons (which were reinterpreted by Colin Campbell on the Haunted Mansion children's record) seem terrifying. I believe Marc was concerned about this aspect of the ride. He definitely was a proponent of the "spooky-but light hearted" camp. Other members of the team seemed to want more traditional horror. Alice Davis remembers, "Marc worked on this on and off for many years, and once in a while he would get frustrated - because Walt would have many different people working on the same thing. Still, Marc always gave his best and tried to point out to others what he didn't agree with in a positive way."
There was no mistaking the art direction from Walt about the exterior. "I asked Walt if he didn't want the outside of the house to look more like Charles Addams, and he said, "No! I want it pristine. I want to show people that we take care of things at Disneyland. You can do what you want on the inside - but let's keep the outside clean and nice for the people." Like all the tombstones and the hearse outside now - Walt would have never wanted that!"
Marc also knew when to admit that something didn't work. His original idea for the changing portraits was a subtle, mysterious effect that one would have to linger at to appreciate. "I wanted a gallery - we had a technique for changing these pictures very slowly - and the system of rear projection was so good - they would slowly animate - so a pretty girl could slowly turn into medusa. But there wasn't a situation in there where you could hold people down that long for them to see it. It would have been nice if there could have been a restaurant or something like that where these things could have been used. Well - we never did it that way in the attraction." At the end of the day, the team kept it in the Hallway - but adapted it to work much more quickly. The Hatbox Ghost, (a figure that appeared in the attic for just the first few months of operation) simply didn't work. In 1999 Imagineer Wayne Jackson recalled that Marc was the one who called him up and asked him to remove it. In the short term, the ride was better for it.
Ultimately, I believe that truth was more important to Marc than anything else. Marc, if anything, had no qualms about telling you what he really thought about something. To this day I have appreciated it - I don't think I could forget his directness. When I was on my way to CalArts - I brought up my portfolio to Marc, which had some truly horrible drawings in it. Sure I would get praise, I was shocked at his negative response. "That one is bad. I don't get that one. Don't show that one to anyone." Well, I was devastated. But then he focused in on one page - a series of sketches I did of a lizard at the L.A. Zoo. He paused and said, "You know - that one is pretty good. That's your best one. I would encourage you to keep doing things like that one, as I say." So, I learned something about honesty and self-improvement that day. Marc would like to say, "Do you want the truth - or do you want to feel good?" I think that Marc was always after the truth.
I felt (and still feel) that Imagineering is influenced by Marc's work. When I worked there, I remember trying to think about staging and design - the best Disney shows excel in that. Something not to forget is that the original Haunted Mansion is still revered by today's Imagineers. In 1999, Disneyland had a once in a lifetime event to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Mansion. Just prior to that, Marc came up to WDI and gave a talk about the designs he did. The archives pulled out his original sketches and rare pieces of the model. It was a more intimate version of the panel discussion at Disneyland, with Tim O'Day moderating. Marc, as usual was his gregarious self. When I reintroduced my fiancé to him - he said, "Oh yes! She's pretty - prettier than you!"
The highlight of the Disneyland event was of course the panel of Imagineers who originally worked on the ride. Not only fans, but current WDI and Disney animators were in the audience as well. When Marc was brought out, he received the biggest applause of the night. He couldn't see it from his vantage point - but there were standing ovations for him in the crowd. And you could hear the audience "ooooh" and "aaaah" whenever his sketches hit the screen.
Later than night, the best part of the evening occurred. We were all told to venture over to the Mansion for a special evening ride. After waiting a considerable time, we entered. Upon exit to the Hallway scene, we found all the Imagineers from the panel (except Marc and Alice) waiting patiently to meet their fans. I will never forget the sight of Sam McKim and Rolly Crump (two very different men) somewhat nervously inspecting a fans tattoo of the Mansion! But where were Marc and Alice? Well - they were down at the banquet table - further on in the ride, waving to all the guests! I'm sure that in a lifetime of artistic surprises, he never thought he'd end up in a ride he'd helped design - on display himself!
Marc passed away in January of 2000. He sadly didn't make it to the Pirates event later that year. But he did get to see first hand how much happiness he brought to the fans of the Haunted Mansion. And that's something to be thankful for. Yale Gracey, Claude Coats, Ken Anderson and others who worked so hard on this attraction didn't get that opportunity. Marc Davis gave a great deal of joy to the world through the work he did. I'm glad he got some of it back.
Christopher Merritt is an artist and designer whose credits include Sindbad's Seven Voyages, The Porto Paradiso Parade, and Winnie The Pooh's Hunny Hunt at Tokyo DisneySea and Tokyo Disneyland, respectively. He is a frequent contributor to The "E" Ticket magazine, and is currently at work on a book documenting the history of Knott's Berry Farm - "Knott's Preserves."
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